By John Landsman, Director of Strategy and Analytics

Over the past few months, I’ve opted-in to receive email from several candidates and political entities occupying various positions along the political spectrum. And I’ve looked at other programs through eDataSource’s email intelligence platform. What’s driving this masochism is professional curiosity, but my investigation is still anecdotal rather than exhaustive.

I’m New Hampshire based. Given the high political season here, I opted-into email from both the state parties, as well as the presidential primary campaigns of Hillary, Jeb and Bernie. (I’d also been looking at Scott Walker’s email program, but he’s now out of the picture.) As a point of comparison, I also registered to receive email from the election campaign of Ted Strickland (Democrat). He’s a former Ohio Governor and six-term U.S. Congressman running for U.S. Senate against a strong Republican incumbent.

Impressions? Here are several; some not so good.

First, political advertising is not subject to the strictures of CAN-SPAM, and it shows. Each organization sends email reflecting multiple “from’s.” So far, at least eight of these are in use by the New Hampshire GOP; seven each from Hillary and Jeb; six from the Strickland campaign; five from Bernie; and two from the New Hampshire democrats. Without checking the actual domains in use, it’s hard for a recipient to know who’s actually sending these emails. In Jeb’s case, I’m seeing emails from his wife, sons, mother and older brother, all named Bush. Hillary has Bill writing on her behalf. But other email seems of much more confusing origin.

In addition, it’s clear that these political email lists can be passed around. I’m now getting lots of email from an organization pledged to “End Citizens United.” I hadn’t signed up for this email, but it’s obvious my email address reached that group from the Strickland campaign. The New Hampshire GOP has just as obviously shared my email address with the re-election campaign of U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte, the Republican incumbent.

Other email best practices are also less faithfully observed. Considering the multiple from’s, most of these organizations are mailing at least daily, some even more frequently than that. It feels like a continuous bombardment.

Subject lines can be almost inflammatory. Examples:  “Major setback,” “Staggering blow,” “Government shutdown looming,” Social Security ABOLISHED,” “Tackling our regulatory crisis,” “Stop the Kochs,” “Planned Parenthood Eliminated,” “Goldman Sachs.”

And irrespective of subject line, actual email content is (surprise!) almost entirely dominated by fundraising (“Chip in now!”), to the virtual exclusion of anything to do with person, position or policy. These financial pleas have been especially urgent during the past week, as the Q3 Federal Election Commission reporting deadline loomed, and everyone was trying to maximize their take. Other calls to action (e.g., “Volunteer for Bernie;” “Meet Jeb”) are either non-existent or clearly subordinate to raising money.

Finally, it would appear in some cases that there’s limited targeting or personalization around how many of these emails position their financial ‘ask’. The recent donor may be receiving the same urgent emails and cadence as someone whose gift was less recent, or who has never given at all.

How are these and other programs actually performing? Within the Presidential field, examples vary: Hillary has accumulated a projected 5.1 million email subscribers. Jeb has 2 million; Bernie has 3.2 million; Ben Carson has 4.6 million.

We can’t see actual fundraising results, but from what we can see, deliverability and engagement results are mixed. Hillary and Bernie show inbox placement rates of more than 90%, with read rates in the mid-teens; Jeb’s inbox placement rates appear to be in the 60’s, but with read rates averaging about 20%. Ben Carson’s emails reflect an 80% inbox placement rate, with read rates averaging 17%.

What are we to make of all this — so far? I may not be an expert in political email, but it seems to me — other possibly neglected best practices aside — that while it may be technically legal for political organizations to send non-permissioned email, and email reflecting multiple from’s, it’s not safe. These practices risk both voter perception and the mailer’s inbox reputation.

But, per the recently departed Mr. Berra, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” There’s lots more story to be told here, as the world turns. We’ll keep watching — and reporting.


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